Given that the company’s Asian sales rose by 103% in 2011, news that Aston Martin has recently opened its largest ever showroom in Shanghai – a glittering, eighteen car-capacity blitzkrieg of arch-capitalism – is hardly cause for an inadvertent splutter of gently soggy breakfast cornflakes over the editorial pages of the daily rag.
This particular Briton does, nonetheless, see it as a real cause for concern; a veritable harbinger of doom… Not for the company per se, I hasten to add, but very much what the company stands for, as reflected in the product.
‘Rather than overt and pretentious, an Aston has to be just right. You need to understand the restraint of the British psyche to do a car like this… What is it about an Aston? It's a lack of vulgarity.’ Thus (let us not forget) spake ex-design boss Ian Callum not so very long ago, with a spot-on evaluation of the brand.
Thing is, perceptions of what constitutes good taste and, indeed, vulgarity vary wildly between the occidental and oriental eye. To put it bluntly, the Chinese car buying public is not averse to a bit of ‘bling’, whereas everything I have found to dislike about the current generation of Astons (and that isn’t, admittedly, much) falls into precisely that category.
Punting cars at the Asian market also, it strikes me, allows Aston to structure its model line-up with a little more abandon than is, perhaps, entirely seemly for such a small company, as evinced by two recent encounters; one with the new and entirely baffling Cygnet, the other with the new and almost entirely voluptuous Virage.
When I asked the nice man who handed over the Virage keys if there really are enough people out there rich and stupid enough in equal measure to pay 31 grand for a face-lifted Toyota city car to make the whole deal worthwhile for the company, the answer came back with the velocity of a rubber bullet fired into a squash court: ‘YES.’ Though I must admit I was so eager to get behind the wheel of the former that I clean forgot to ask him where, exactly the latter is selling.
He did, however, go some way to explaining the price tag. Apparently, it takes some 220 man-hours to build a Virage and, astonishingly, a good 150 to turn an iQ into a Cygnet. Presumably, then, this must include time spent chasing assorted, hand-picked heifers around a field with a bolt-gun…
Happily, the fruits of the 220 man-hours laboured on the Virage are somewhat more readily apparent. I’m pretty sure that this supremely elegant, £150,000 coupe simply wouldn’t exist but for Aston’s bullish take on that burgeoning Asian market, because it fills a truly cigarette paper-thin gap in the model line-up between the lounge-lizard DB9 and the somewhat more unruly DBS.
All three cars are armed with different iterations of the company’s glorious 5935cc V12; the DB9 generating 470bhp, the Virage 490bhp, and the DBS 510bhp. In the case of the Virage, via a silken automatic gearbox with flappy paddle override and a throttle response and damper sharpening ‘Sport’ button, that equates to 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds, and a fully crushed Axminster of 186mph.
Now, a cynic might venture that spending (ironically) the price of a Cygnet on gaining 20bhp of oomph over the DB9 is hardly a worthwhile venture. But so artfully has Aston Martin plugged that narrowest of gaps with this car that I’m somewhat surprised and more than delighted to report that it’s actually worth every penny.
With new headlights, a new five-vane grille, a carbon front splitter, new wings and a new sill treatment that flows into a new rear diffuser, the Virage is undeniably striking from every angle. Though it's not as burst-out-cheering pretty as the DB9, most notably because the front wing and sill protuberances look, to my eye, a tad heavy and, hence, clumsy. Mercifully, evidence of further Chinese-pleasing exterior bling is limited to the unnecessary chroming of the bonnet's air vents.
On board, all is where you left it in the DB9, including that which I still cannot bring myself to relish; rear seats fit only for Douglas Bader, the Rastafarian dreadlock-housing leather cap over the driver’s instrument binnacle, the all but illegible, white-on-aluminium, lilac-backlit instruments themselves, the Ford Fiesta steering column stalks and, worse, the Ford Mondeo steering wheel mounted switches. The Asian market might not mind over much, but surely it’s time a bespoke, £150k car put an end to parts bin pilfering.
However, it isn’t visual tweaks which stand the Virage apart from its siblings so much as its unique dynamic stance. After just a few miles behind the wheel, it’s readily apparent that Aston has artfully walked the tightrope between the DB9’s boundless capacity to loaf indolently across entire continents with utter insouciance and the DBS’s ability to engage the driver at a far more visceral level.
The thoroughly reworked chassis still has the ability to schmooze along in a high speed cruise in the manner a proper Gran Turismo machine, albeit tingling a little more information to the driver through helm and seat of the pants.
But engage the Sport button, reach for the flappy paddles, and floor it, and the Virage combines the ebb-and-flow alacrity of any Aston on a sinuous A-road with a new-found willingness to carry speed through far tighter radiuses. Body control is better, traction and grip are better, and the only complaint I have about the monstrous carbon-ceramic brakes fitted as standard are that they need a deal of heat in them to wake up and behave entirely properly, leaving me feeling, occasionally, that I was using them more than I would wish just to keep the heat levels topped up.
All of which, ultimately, leaves me far more worried about style than substance… With the rampant growth of the Asian market, ever prestige car maker is inevitably being chivvied into quietly turning its back on its old established customer base, and, indeed, those customers’ values.
But if a company as small as Aston Martin really can afford to indulge in the expansionism that has hatched the Cygnet and Virage, perhaps they might also consider indulging their increasingly sales-insignificant heartland customers with classic, parallel production line, bling-free models of British restraint?